“What Are You Laughing at, Mary?”
“What Are You Laughing at, Mary?”
Mary Livingstone’s Comic Voice
Abstract and Keywords
Reluctant, young Sadye Marks becomes drawn into vaudeville and radio performance through marriage to Jack Benny. The character created for her by Harry Conn, Mary Livingstone, becomes a popular and unique character in American entertainment. As Jack’s sometimes-secretary and chief heckler, Mary criticizes men with remarkable freedom, yet also retains her independence and attractiveness, much like Hollywood heroines of the 1930s, and yet Mary never has to get married in the final reel. Mary Livingstone had great cultural impact, and star status, in the 1930s as a comic “Unruly Woman.” After World War II, however, Mary’s inhibitions drew her away from the microphone, and her delightfully tart tongue was heard less frequently. With a fascinating affinity for a feminist viewpoint, female characters in the Benny show narrative universe were tough and usually prevailed over the men.
Mary Livingstone’s boisterous laughter and forthright puncturing of Jack Benny’s vanity were the cornerstones of one of the most unusual characters in American radio comedy. Chief “stooge” (or comic foil for the main character) of the Benny radio program, taking her amusement at Jack’s expense, she occupied the rare position of an attractive, unmarried female who had full equality with the fellows in Benny’s gang. Jack’s long-suffering neighbors on the show, actress Benita Colman and her movie star husband Ronald, called Mary the only “normal one” among Benny’s troupe of zanies.1 Mary was the first character on the Benny radio program that did not have a defined duty on the show (neither bandleader, singer, nor announcer). Serving vaguely as Jack’s secretary, she haphazardly performed a few tasks, impertinently disobeyed his requests, prattled like a mild version of Gracie Allen, and read letters from her hapless family back in Plainfield, New Jersey. Mary mainly functioned as Jack’s sometimes cynical, sometimes silly, heckling friend. After five years on the air, when the Jell-O Program’s writers had the Kenny Baker character voice the addlepated aspects of the show’s humor, Mary’s character became smarter and more sophisticated, and she began to critique Jack’s foibles with increasing tartness.
Key to Mary Livingstone’s character on Benny’s radio program was her independence—with only hints of paid employment, she lived alone and in comfort, and could say whatever she pleased, whenever she wanted. Rare among female characters in primetime radio, Mary was never dependent on men—she did not need a husband, father, or even a steady boyfriend. She was never desperate for romance or lacking because she was not in a relationship (unlike other radio characters such as the tart-tongued Connie Brooks of Our Miss Brooks or man-hungry Vera Vague on Bob Hope’s Pepsodent Program).2 (p.54) Mary was never criticized by other characters for her laughter, her critical barbs or her looks (unlike married women such as Sapphire on Amos ’n’ Andy or Jane Bickerson on The Bickersons).3 Jack’s only punishment of Mary was to tease her about her salad days selling hosiery at the May Company department store, and to threaten, not very convincingly, to send her back there.
The Mary Livingstone character was as independent as any of the feisty Hollywood film heroines of the 1930s and 1940s—Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, or Rosalind Russell. (Perhaps not coincidentally, these actresses were Mary’s friends in private life.) As “unruly women,” using media historian Kathleen Rowe’s term, they were unafraid to make spectacles of themselves. These transgressive, confident female characters became the center of attention and unsettled social hierarchies by disrupting, redirecting, and transforming the humor usually made at women’s expense, using the power of female laughter to “challenge the social and symbolic systems that would keep women in their place.”4 In some ways surpassing the freedom of the unruly women of Hollywood film, Mary’s character had even more avenues for disruption; since the Benny weekly half hour radio program was not a romantic comedy whose plot must be resolved within ninety minutes, Mary’s character never needed to seek a “resolution” to her status, never had to fall in love, wed, or get her comeuppance from a leading man—no Cary Grant or William Powell ever tamed or domesticated her.
This chapter explores the centrality of Mary Livingstone to the narrative world of the Benny radio program, and the development of her comic character during the early years of the show. Mary’s voice was an important ingredient of her performance, and this chapter examines how the radio program’s comedy utilized her laughter, her heckling of Benny, and her parodies of transgressive female characters to insert a feminist-inflected accent into the male-dominated world of radio comedy. Mary and other unruly, outspoken minor female characters on Benny’s show played formative roles in shaping the gender dynamics of the program’s narrative world. The similarities and differences between Mary’s character and that of Mae West on the one hand, and Gracie Allen on the other, allowed Mary to add even more dimensions to her part. Mary mastered a Mae West impersonation in early 1933 and for two decades used it in Benny’s radio show skits to give voice to tough, independent women who cuckolded their husbands and shot their lovers, and always got away with it.
Despite her importance to the Benny radio program, Mary Livingstone’s gradual retirement in the early 1950s and Jack’s subsequent years of television (p.55) broadcasts without her have caused her place in the history of radio comedy to have largely been forgotten. To compound this neglect, away from the microphone, Mary Benny was a sharp-tongued, aloof person not remembered fondly by Benny’s friends and colleagues.5 She was insecure and jealous of anyone close to her husband, especially other women.6 The crippling stage-and mike-fright from which Mary suffered began to cause her to faint after the broadcasts; the condition increasingly worsened over the years. Eventually, it drove her to avoid the public spotlight.
In the 1930s, however, Mary Livingstone the radio performer was popular with critics and the radio-listening public. She was known as a feisty, wisecracking dame with a lilting laugh, and she was regularly singled out for accolades. Her witty bantering with Jack was key to the show’s popularity, as every story about Benny’s program pointed out. A 1936 Delineator essay maintained that Mary and Gracie Allen were the two most popular radio comediennes. Mary’s radio persona was judged to be “cute,” a bit dashing with a deadpan voice, and a “pleasant girl you’d meet anywhere except in the theatrical profession.”7 A 1938 New York Times survey of women in radio ranked Mary among the highest rated and best paid of all the on-air comediennes.8
Mary Livingstone’s persona on Benny’s show contained complexities and contradictions. Even after she evolved from a dizzy girl into a smart-alecky, tough dame, when reading her poems or her letters from home Mary reverted to the role of the unsophisticated kid from Plainfield, New Jersey. She could act like a lovesick teenaged movie fan mooning over Robert Taylor, or wrangle dinner invitations from men she met on the train like a brash single woman, but the audience knew that in reality she was Jack Benny’s wife. Perhaps that made her flirtations with other men and put-downs of Jack even more amusing to radio listeners. By having Mary’s character not wed to Jack on the show, she could slip in and out of the role of the spouse who could completely deflate the pretensions of her husband, and always have the last laugh at his expense.
Benny’s comedy took pleasure in turning accepted male-female relationships upside down—the women were dominant in marriages, independent and strong, while the men in their lives were lazy, drunken louts. While Benny’s shows did not criticize or denigrate Mary Livingstone or the glamorous film actresses who made guest appearances, the other female characters at the margins of the show were burlesques of traditional femininity—Dennis’s mother was a pipefitter, husband-hungry Babe (Mary’s sister) drove a steamroller, Gertrude and Mabel the switchboard operators and Gladys (p.56) Zybisco (Jack’s sometimes date) were bedraggled drudges, and Mary’s mother and Dennis’s mother regularly pummeled their weakling husbands. The war between the sexes played out constantly on the program (as it did on so many other radio shows), but here the women nearly always triumphed over the men (and over Benny most of all).
Sadye Marks becomes Mary Livingstone
Although she had peripheral connections to show business while growing up, young Sadye Marcowitz (the family changed its name to Marks several years after Sadye was born) apparently never harbored ambitions of becoming an entertainer, even though she was naturally talented as a singer. Although for publicity’s sake she usually shaved a few years off her age, records show that she was born in Seattle, Washington, on June 25, 1905, the second child of David Marcowitz, a fruit importer who had immigrated from Romania, and his second-generation immigrant wife Esther Wagner Marcowitz.9 Sadye was raised in a middle-class West Coast Jewish household in Vancouver, British Columbia, with her older sister Babe (née Ethel) and younger brother Hilliard.10 Sadye had regular contact with vaudeville performers throughout her youth. When the Marks family lived in Vancouver, her parents liked to entertain visiting Jewish actors. She recalled that “they derived particular pleasure out of opening their home to show business performers appearing in town at the Orpheum, our local vaudeville house. Friday night suppers were frequently gay and interesting affairs, as the country’s top stars had an opportunity to relax.” In 1921, Zeppo Marx (the Marx Brothers were no relation) invited Jack Benny to join him at a Passover meal at the Marks home in Vancouver while the performers were appearing in town. The twenty-seven-year-old Benny gave the teenager little notice.11
Completing high school after the family moved to Los Angeles, Sadye worked in the hosiery department of the May Company store in downtown Los Angeles, close to the city’s theaters and movie houses. Describing herself in her autobiography as shy, she never spoke of career ambition other than marriage. In the mid-1920s, Sadye’s older sister Babe married a vaudevillian, violinist Al Bernovici. This gave Sadye further exposure to the world of entertainment.12 Sadye met Jack Benny again in 1926, when Babe reintroduced them. Benny was then touring the West Coast Orpheum vaudeville circuit on the same bill with Bernovici. Jack had had plenty of romantic experience (p.57) by this point in his life, having pursued a romance with older vaudeville star Nora Bayes, and having been engaged on and off for several years to singer Mary Kelly (introduced to Jack by her roommate Gracie Allen). Jack quickly became romantically interested in Sadye, but she was engaged to someone else.13 Benny persevered, visiting her several times when she was at work at the May Company store. Six months later, he persuaded Sadye to marry him. She hurriedly took the train to Chicago, and they were wed on January 14, 1927. Variety announced the nuptials and noted that Benny’s new wife was a nonprofessional.14
Sadye found herself the young wife of an itinerant theatrical entertainer and watched his performances from backstage. While she liked the traveling, she was jealous of the scantily clad chorus girls with whom Jack associated. Several months before they were married, Jack’s role in the elaborate Shubert Brothers’ stage revue The Great Temptations had ended and he had returned to vaudeville bookings. His routine varied between acting as emcee, performing a solo routine, and doing a skit paired with a young female assistant performing a “Dumb Dora” role, as a dimwitted but pretty young woman who exchanged light banter with him.
Benny had used other assistants in the past, but now (supposedly to save money) he asked Sadye if she might try it. Sadye joined Jack as his on-stage “stooge,” or comic foil, and although she was a reluctant and nervous performer, managers reported that audiences were pleased with the results.15 Benny family lore maintains that Jack rehired the original actress when they played Los Angeles, but after several performances the theater manager stated that the reviews weren’t as good as when Sadye was on stage, so the girl was sacked and Sadye got the job permanently. Even though she probably had no professional vocal training, Sadye soon was also singing two numbers in Jack’s act.16 Her voice was pleasantly medium-ranged, without so much of the warbling popularized by other female singers of the era.
Adopting the stage name “Marie Marsh,” Sadye performed together with Jack in occasional vaudeville bookings between 1927 and 1931. They also appeared together in a brief 1928 Warner Bros. talkie short, Bright Moments, in which she billed herself as “Marie Marlo.”17 Even though Sadye’s stage appearances were successful, she did not request equal billing in the act, unlike their friends Burns and Allen, or Block and Sully. When Benny took roles in films, or on Broadway in Earl Carroll’s Vanities in 1931, Sadye apparently was content to remain behind the scenes. When Benny decided to appear on radio, his original contract with Canada Dry was for a solo act.
(p.58) This intriguing reluctance to promote herself publically as Jack’s partner foreshadowed the way Sadye downplayed the early moments of her radio career. Throughout her life, Sadye adamantly maintained that her entrance onto the Canada Dry Program was unintentional, and that it was just as unplanned and happenstance that she might become a radio actress as it had been when she’d become a vaudeville performer. Sadye’s determination to cast herself as a reluctant star and self-effacing spouse is unusual in an American show business star culture that fostered and promoted stories of unique talents, Cinderella stories, large egos, and preordained destinies. Over the years, Sadye’s story of her entrance into the Benny program toggled back and forth between her late incorporation into the show in order to pad out a short script, or as a last-minute substitute due to Benny’s inability to find a suitable actress to play a small part. Either way, the Mary Livingstone role is set out as a one-time occurrence. As a 1935 newspaper profile of the Bennys’ radio origins recounted:
One night Jack’s script ran short. He had to fill in for a couple of minutes and an idea flashed through his mind. He waved to George Olsen to start a number, walked over to where Mary was sitting and brought her over to the microphone with him. He signaled to the engineer to fade the music out and started an impromptu bit of dialog with her. They succeeded in ending the broadcast without any “dead air.” Within two weeks Jack had received so many requests that Mary be made a regular part of the show that there was nothing to do but get Harry Conn, his writer, to bring her into scripts regularly. In spite of herself, Mary Livingstone became a radio star.18
In a 1965 interview, Sadye/Mary claimed:
One day they had a bit on the show for a girl from Plainfield, New Jersey, who was supposed to come on and read a silly poem. They auditioned a lot of girls and by the afternoon they still hadn’t found one to satisfy them. The director asked me if I would try. So that night I read the poem on the show and the next thing I knew so many letters came in they wanted me to do another one, which I did. Before I knew it, I was on steady as Mary Livingstone, the girl from Plainfield.19
Such self-generated stories explain that it was Sadye’s delightful laughter (induced by her nervousness, Sadye suggested) that provoked the welcome, if unexpected, audience response. This unanticipated success purportedly kept Sadye on the show in a onetime role that transformed into a major character on the show.
(p.59) Evidence uncovered by examining the original Canada Dry Program scripts provides an alternative story to this myth of Sadye the accidental radio star. Harry Conn and Jack Benny developed several narrative threads into the show’s loosely sketched plot that can be seen as laying the groundwork for the introduction of a continuing character to serve as Jack’s assistant. As the first chapter related, very soon after Benny began broadcasting his twice-a-week comedy and music program in May 1932, he and Conn realized that the program needed additional characters to involve Benny in witty repartee. Given Benny’s pressing into service of the band leader, vocalist, musicians, Conn, and Jack’s personal assistant Harry Baldwin, it’s easy to imagine that other people in the studio, such as Sadye, might be called upon to perform. On the second show (May 6) Jack announced the beginning of contests that would result in listener entries that would need to be processed. On the May 23 program, Jack asked Ethel to take a letter as he dictated a response to a listener query. On June 15, Jack announced that he had placed an advertisement in the “help wanted” section of the newspaper for a secretary. A young woman named “Garbo” answered the ad (played by Blanche Stewart with a Swedish accent); when Jack tried to dictate a letter to her, she was quickly found to be incompetent, and Jack fired her. On the June 27 Canada Dry Program, Jack announced that he had hired a male secretary; this character, too, disappeared after one episode.20
They dropped the topic, but four weeks later, Benny and Conn picked up that narrative thread again, and on Wednesday, July 27, 1932, the Mary Livingstone character appeared on the show. Blanche Stewart had already taken several small nonrecurring roles on the Canada Dry Program, and Jack could have chosen her to fill the role. Stewart remained with the Benny program for many years, performing bit parts and serving as Mary Livingstone’s understudy. Nevertheless, it was Sadye who took the role and not Blanche. Although copies of their contracts with Canada Dry no longer exist, Benny might have negotiated a paid acting position for his wife that started with this episode, the first after his thirteenth week show renewal.
For many years the July 27 script was considered lost, as there is no copy of it in Benny’s personal papers. Jack and Mary were sentimental about their performing past. Perhaps they stored it separately from the other documents in Benny’s script collection. Eventually they misplaced it. With no other evidence, critics and historians have tended to accept the Bennys’ version of Mary’s origin story. A copy of the script was finally located, however, on microfilm in the NBC Masterfile script collection at the Library of Congress. (p.60) From it, we can examine how the particular narrative elements introduced into the show on this one episode would have long-lasting consequences.
The July 27 Canada Dry Program episode opened with Jack, announcer du jour Jimmy Wallingford, George Olsen, and Ethel Shutta congratulating each other on completion of the first thirteen weeks of twice-a-week broadcasting and the sponsor’s renewal of the show.21 Jack made a joke about being a “hay and feed man”—he said “Hey!” to a girl and then had to feed her. At this point the Mary Livingstone character simply joined the dialogue with no introduction, commenting on Jack’s “hay” joke after Wallington groaned at it. The script indicated
(laughing) Oh, I think that’s awfully funny. Wallingford immediately shushed her, saying “Pardon me, Miss … but the guests are not allowed to make comments during our program.” Sadye responded that she thought Jack was the “cutest thing.” Jack tried to continue the show, and Wallingford said to him, “Jack, don’t mind that little girl interrupting, but she’s been coming up here to see you two or three times, and seems to be kinda anxious to meet you.” Jack tried “forcefully” as the script directed, to return to the business of running his show, but also kept whispering to Wallingford “Who is she?” “Do you know her?” “Is that HER standing over there?” “Oooh … Jimmy, she’s a cutie, isn’t she?” After a musical number from the orchestra, Jack and Wallingford read out congratulatory telegrams from listeners that incorporated spoofing mentions of ginger ale. One wire from a listener in Scotland read “Up here in Scotland we’re all drinking Canada Dry by the GLASS-gow” and Sadye jumped in to say “Oh, I think that’s SWELL!” Wallingford attempted to quiet her but she continued making little asides and laughingly remarked, “When you drink Canada Dry, where does the GLASS GO? That’s the funniest joke, I must tell it to my mother.” Jack interrupted her with “That isn’t what I said, Miss … I said, they’re all drinking it by the glass-go.” Jack asked her to sit down until the program was concluded, and she continued to pester him, asking if she must call him Mr. Benny or could she call him Jack. He responded “Jack,” and she retorted, “Thanks, Mr. Benny.” Jack then inquired as to her name:
My name’s Mary Kurtizinger Livingstone. … but just Mary to you.
I’m awfully glad of that … these are only half-hour programs, you know. Say, by the way, where do you live? (quickly) Oh, I live in Plainfield … you get on a bus, then you get off at the one stop-light … Walk three blocks to your left … Then you cut through the cemetery and over the hill … then up the road until you see a little red house … and you go right through the field, and THERE YOU ARE!
There YOU are … not ME… .Well, it was sweet of you to come up here, Mary. Now why don’t you sit down quietly and listen to the rest of our program?
All right, Jack.
In the episode’s final skit, set at a testimonial dinner for Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Jack pompously intoned a speech about the product’s virtues that drove away all the guests except Mary. She announced that she was going home, and Jack asked her to come up to the program again sometime. She suggested Monday night, and he said “Err … oh, all right.” Sadye departed, saying, “I thought you were SWELL … good-bye, Jack.” Benny ended the program with a hint that Mary intrigued him: “That was the last Mary. … I mean, the last number of the 26th program on the 27th of July.”
As opposed to the version of the story the Bennys crafted to explain Sadye’s unintentional radio debut, the original script shows that the Mary character was involved throughout the program, not just in a few lines tagged on at the end. Conn seemed to have created a fleshed-out Mary Livingstone character in one episode, as Mary exhibited aspects of her character’s personality and biographical details that would remain remarkably stable over the years, such as her hometown, the importance of her mother, her jumping into conversations, her scatterbrained dialogue, and her flirtatious, contentious relationship with Jack. Above all, in the first show, Sadye brought Mary Livingstone that attention-getting laugh.
The Mary Livingstone character was central to the following episode, broadcast August 1.22 Mary was not there in person, however. Ethel read out a letter Mary had sent to Jack, who had been fidgeting that the young fan had not reappeared—
Dear Jack: You probably don’t remember me, but I’m the girl who came up to the studio Wednesday night. Remember me … Mary? I’m sorry I can’t be with you tonight, but you see I have been very busy helping mother with the dishes as she has a sore thumb. I am still laughing at that joke you told Wednesday about when you drink Canada Dry by the glass, where does the (p.62) glass go? I told it to my mother but she didn’t laugh. And father doesn’t seem to like you, either. But I think you’re swell. Well must close now as I have a lot of work to do. I am studying shorthand and stenography. Will be up to see you on Wednesday night. Good bye. (It’s signed) Mary Livingstone, From Plainfield. Oh PS, I think you’re swell.
Mary returned in person on August 3, laughing and pronouncing that everything she encountered was “swell.”23 Sadye was then absent for two weeks, (one source suggests she was ill), but she returned on the August 17 program, when Jack hired Mary to be his personal secretary. Subsequently, Mary appeared in every episode.24
In September, Benny and Conn introduced a romantic subplot into the shows. Jack ceased joking about his “girlfriend in Newark” and began to flirt with Mary, and the growing romance became a major element of the narrative. There were complications and misunderstandings as Mary asked Ethel for romantic advice, members of the band flirted with Mary, and she overheard Jack flirting with Ethel. In the October 17 episode, Mary and Jack impetuously professed their love for one another.25
As the previous chapter discussed, this experiment by Benny and Conn was one of the narrative avenues that they quickly abandoned. The imposition of too much romantic story line would seriously hamper the informal, joking atmosphere they had been building, so they abruptly ended its story line. Mary Livingstone remained Jack’s boisterous, incompetent secretary—she forgot to put paper in the typewriter, asked Jack for definitions of words she did not understand, and hampered his efforts to get correspondence completed. Mary also began flirting with the other members of George Olsen’s band and allowed them to escort her home, while Jack stood by and quietly fumed in frustration.26 There was much more humor to be mined from unresolved affection than in true love. Milt Josefsberg, one of Benny’s later writers, noted that Mary’s ill-defined role on the radio program “was a complete contradiction of the most basic rule in creating comedy programs. For a running character to sustain as a regular member of a successful series, she, or he, must have a clearly-defined function in relationship to the star.”27 Breaking the narrative rules with this unruly, unattached woman was another of the Benny show’s many innovations.
At this point, Sadye Marks adopted “Mary Livingstone” as her professional stage name. Sadye might have continued to use “Marie Marsh,” but several actresses in New York and Hollywood had similar-sounding names. (p.63) By mid-October, Benny’s radio scripts, which had previously cued her as “Sadye,” began calling her “Mary” as well.28
During the first seven months of the Canada Dry radio show in 1932, Mary Livingstone’s character played the naïve second banana to Ethel Shutta, the sophisticated singer who had appeared in Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee and in the Ziegfeld Follies. Ethel’s character on the show was an independent-minded married woman in her thirties who brooked no nonsense from men. Ethel and Jack bantered and flirted with each other in dialogue, and she played the original “unruly woman” roles in the program’s film parodies. Ethel imitated Greta Garbo as the ballerina Gruskinskaya in the Canada Dry Program send-up of the hit film Grand Hotel, with Jack playing the suave Baron. On October 24, the Benny gang performed a sketch titled “The Murder of Mr. X,” in which Ethel imitated new movie sensation Mae West with a cue in the script calling for a “very breezily” rendered line of “You said it, Big Boy” and sexy humming of “Harlem Moon.” In another episode, Ethel played a socialite pushing her hapless husband (played by Olsen) out the door of their apartment so that she could invite in her lover (played by Jack). Cool-headed Ethel then commanded Benny and a succession of other suitors to hide behind the curtains when the cuckolded husband inevitably returned for his missing hat. Mary played no role in these skits.
On October 26, 1932, the cast performed the sketch “Why Girls Leave Home,” a burlesque of the old “ten-twent-thirt” theatrical melodramas about a poor girl’s virtue being threatened by the lasciviousness of an evil landlord. In this skit it was Mary, and not Ethel, who took the lead role. Mary played the part of a fourteen-year-old girl who was sole support of her family, industriously scrubbing floors and operating a sewing machine. Jack was her elderly father. George Olsen played the malevolent landlord who arrived to demand an enormous rent payment. Mary pled permission to go to the Big City to find work. Just as the landlord returned to kick the old father out into the street, Mary melodramatically returned home. Jack inquired how she got the rent money, and Mary loudly proclaimed she worked very hard and saved and “was a GOOD GIRL” (emphasis in the script). Jack announced that her morality did not matter: “What’s the difference, Nellie? The home is ours!” The skit’s humor lay for listeners in the cynical knowledge that innocent virtue of Victorian times was in short supply for the working girl in Depression times.
(p.64) One other contribution Mary’s character made to the program in Fall 1932 was her first Labor Day poem. Ridiculous stanzas, recited in a sing-songy voice, would become a longstanding Mary Livingstone trademark. While the early poems helped reinforce Mary’s “Dumb Dora” persona, their continuation through her transition to a harder character served to soften the bitter edges of her sharp-tongued criticisms of Jack by reminding listeners that she still had a playful side. The initial Labor Day poem Conn wrote for Mary was notable for a morbid tone that subsequent doggerel avoided. Directions in the script instructed Mary to sniffle while reading it:
- As thru life we wander—often even as we go
- Troubles—worry—care endure as yet
- Something listens in our ear as oft it was—and STILL
- Isn’t it the truth is what you get?
- When the night begins each morning or afternoon we feel,
- That those times are not just what they used to be
- Labor Day! Oh Labor Day… .
- It just seems to reveal
- That a rolling stone is not your friend at all,
- Old pal of mine …
- … ISN’T THAT SAD?29
Conn soon reconceptualized the manner in which these bits of doggerel contributed to Mary’s developing character. Subsequent poems would be much lighter in tone. Mary recited these odes to holidays like a schoolgirl, such as this example from February 1934:
- Dear old Winter, Dear old Winter,
- With your ice and snow,
- Drafty echoes in the valley
- Dear old Winter, Dear old Winter
Mary’s poems added bit of human frailty to her sometimes acid wit; the verses were filled with bad puns and sophomoric wordplay. They provoked lots of audience laughter, and Jack began to intersperse commentary between her lines that questioned her odd rhyming. Her poetry was one of the few ways that Jack could find fault in Mary, but even then his criticisms carried an air of affectionate tolerance.
As a consequence of the upheavals to the cast, broadcast time, and network that sponsor Canada Dry heaped on Benny, Conn, and their program in late October 1932, the Mary Livingstone character took on added significance. Ethel Shutta, George Olsen, his band members and the NBC announcers that Benny and Conn had incorporated into the comic dialogue abruptly left the show. Because she was now the most experienced member of the supporting cast, Mary’s part expanded, as she stepped up to inherit the comic stooge and straight-man roles that Olsen and Shutta had filled.
As the previous chapter discussed, in addition to the cast changes, the sponsor in mid-November introduced an additional writer, Sid Silvers, to be added to the program. Silvers devised a new narrative focused on Jack as a theatrical impresario with Sid as his assistant, a large part for himself that came at a diminishment of Mary Livingstone’s lines and importance to the plot. The episodes do not exist in recorded form, but the scripted dialogue reveals Sid’s character to be unappealingly brash and lazy, and he speaks to Mary in a condescending and belittling manner. Jack all of a sudden starts chasing chorus girls, while Mary mopes on the sidelines. In the ruckus of Benny, Conn, and Livingstone demanding that sponsor Canada Dry remove Silvers from the program, Variety claimed that it was Mary Livingstone who remonstrated the most, in order to regain her leading role. The protest was successful, and Canada Dry relented.
Mary’s increased involvement in Benny’s radio show was noticed by critics and audiences, and the couple was often mentioned in articles about the sudden prominence of husband and wife teams in radio. In November 1932, the Washington Post’s radio critic noted that Mary was much more than just a “straight man” or appendage, unlike other female assistants.31 Mary fully took over the roles in parody skits portraying sophisticated, sexually aware women. On the December 29, 1932, program the Benny cast performed the sketch “She Lived, She Loved, and She Learned,” in which Mary, as a bored and wealthy wife, pushed her lackluster husband (played by one of the band members) out the door on a business trip. Soon afterwards, the milkman knocked and Mary rejected him as it was the Canada Dry Program (thus he was representing a competing product). Jack entered as the lover, who soon had to hide in the closet. On January 15, 1933, they performed a skit based on the scandalous Broadway drama of sexual promiscuity in the South Seas, Rain, calling it “Snow.” Mary, in the Sadie Thompson role, sang a few bars of (p.66)
(p.67) “St. Louis Woman” to help paint the appropriate picture for the listening audience.32
After Benny’s group was fired by Canada Dry in early 1933 and hired by Chevrolet (meaning a return to NBC), new decision makers chose male vocalists for the program. Benny’s success in negotiating a favorable salary and prominent co-comedian role for Mary Livingstone was noted admiringly in the trade press.33 Mary Livingstone was now the only woman in the cast (now billed as a comic program with musical interludes). Mary proved popular with radio audiences and critics, who complimented her assertive character. A review of the Chevrolet Program in June 1933 remarked:
Seemingly, every comedian must now own or operate a stooge to be on any major payroll. Mr. Benny’s wife, Mary Livingstone, stooges as an impudent secretary but refuses to be submerged in the classic dumb-dame department. She gives as well as takes and the two of them together account for a total of twelve to fifteen minutes of unwatered frivolity [during the half hour program] which you’d do well not to miss.34
On March 31, 1933, the cast performed a sketch parodying Mae West’s new hit film She Done Him Wrong. In Lady Lou’s dressing room, Mary as Mae West hummed one of her signature tunes, “Frankie and Johnny,” and purred lines like “Hullo, Dark ’n’ Handsome,” and “Listen, hon, why don’t you come up some time?” Harry Conn had a long-standing Mae West connection, as one of her scriptwriters since the 1920s.35 Now that West was a national sensation, Benny and Conn wondered if Mary could carry off Mae West’s distinctive voice as well as Ethel Shutta had the previous fall. Mary Livingstone enthusiastically took up the challenge of transmitting Mae’s vocal personality, and she was an unexpected success. Washington Post radio reviewer Robert Heinl in April 1933 praised her:
Mary Livingstone distinguished herself as an imitator of Mae West during a program over the networks recently. Miss Livingstone mastered Miss West’s dulcet speech of She Done Him Wrong during a single sitting at the performance of the popular talkie. “But I was never so nervous in my life,” said Miss Livingstone (Mrs. Jack Benny out of office hours). “I worried a lot about the imitation, for after all, there’s no one talks just like Mae West!”36
The reporter noted a month later, “Mary Livingstone’s imitation of Mae West … invariably gets a ‘rise’ out of the studio audience. Mary’s inflections bring applause and laughter from the studio visitors.”37 Mary’s expanding (p.68) vocal comedic abilities added layers of verve and life to this well-known transgressive character.38
Conn and Benny wrote the Mae West character into at least ten of the subsequent skits on the Chevrolet radio show in 1933 and 1934, as Mary was called upon to play sophisticated or sexually aware characters that broadened her “regular” identity as addlepated secretary/companion. In December 1933 the cast performed a parody of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Mary played Liza with a Mae West accent. In subsequent years, as Mae-mania abated, Benny and his writers incorporated Mary’s popular vocal characterization into her portrayals of a succession of tough girls. Over the next fifteen seasons, Mary continued to play a series of sultry-voiced, gun-wielding wives, lovers, and cigarette girls (named Gertie La Strip or Mitzi La Rue) in the Captain O’Benny murder mystery skits. Mary’s brazen, confident characters shot their milquetoast husbands, and weren’t sorry in the least.39 The characters anticipated the femme fatales who would lurk in the shadows of film noir detective films of the postwar years. Mary performed these provocative roles in at least nineteen episodes of the Benny radio show between 1935 and 1942, and at least a dozen more between 1942 and 1950.
Mary’s Mid-1930s Radio Stardom
The expansion of Mary Livingstone’s role as Jack Benny’s chief stooge brought her a great deal of publicity, although she always remained in Jack’s shadow.40 A Boston Globe reporter in 1935 seemed nonplussed at Mary’s popularity: “Today Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone constitute an inseparable combination. Jack without Mary is like Amos without Andy. Listeners wait for her poems and wisecracks as eagerly as they do for Jack’s ‘Hello again’ and his gags at the expense of Don Bestor’s spats. Mary’s ‘OK, Toots’ has become a national catch-phrase. They even wrote a popular song about it.”41
Mary’s scatterbrained character and recurring specialty bits did start to grate on a few critics’ nerves. Larry Wolters of the Chicago Tribune complained about the repetitive quality of Mary’s poems.42 On the other hand, Mary’s poems were one of the most heralded features of the Benny group’s personal appearance tours. In 1934, a newspaper promotion challenged Pittsburgh fans to complete the final two verses to “Oh, Pittsburgh!” to win prizes. In Detroit in 1936, the city’s newspapers made Mary the center of publicity around the Benny troupe appearance; they held a cash prize contest (p.69) for fans to send in their own bits of doggerel imitating Mary’s style, which she would purportedly judge.43 They christened Mary “the punk poetess of the air, who appears with Jack Benny as his interrupting stooge on all this programs.”44
Some of the public commentary on Mary’s achievements referenced the paucity of other successful female entertainers on radio. A Variety headline on November 21, 1933, declared “Few Femme Radio Favs,” bemoaning the dearth of women’s names as lead performer among the twelve most popular radio programs. The article noted that Gracie Allen was the top woman as part of Burns and Allen, and that several women such as Mary Livingstone and Portland Hoffa supported their spouses in comedy. (Hoffa, who portrayed a dim-witted young female companion to husband Fred Allen on his radio program, once described herself as “Wooge” or female stooge. It’s a delightful term, but I have not yet found other references to it.45) The dreary situation for women in radio in the 1930s differed from the dominance of female stars in Hollywood film, where women were the top-paid actresses (if behind the scenes, there were few directors or major screenwriters still at work after their 1920s heyday).
In the 1930s, Mary’s comic persona was most frequently compared to that of radio’s most prominent female star, Gracie Allen. Famous for what her partner George Burns called her “illogical logic,” addlepated verbal games and linguistic somersaults, Gracie seemed brainless on the surface. However, Gracie was not so much a “Dumb Dora” as a nearly uncontainable female force, who twisted around the heads of everyone she encountered until they were befuddled.46 Radio historian Susan Douglas remarks that Gracie’s unruliness was legendary—“her absolute refusal to obey orders, her defiance of instructions, her willful misunderstanding of the language.”47 Scatterbrained but loveable, Gracie always escaped whatever predicaments she caused, while George stood at her side, critiquing her and her stories in a resigned sort of exasperation. In the imaginative space of radio, George couldn’t quite “contain” her as thoroughly as he would be able to later on television within the confines of their suburban home setting. Radio historian Leah Lowe credits Gracie with overcoming the worst social prejudices about gender in which 1930s culture could frame her as a “Dumb Dora” through her portrayal of “an exuberant femininity oblivious to many of the limitations imposed on women by patriarchal authority.”48
bizarre things that she did, for in Gracie’s mind, the ending outcome was always logical.49 As George Burns said of Gracie’s illogic, “If you listen to Gracie’s prattle on the radio, you may notice that her logic is faultless, though usually completely mistaken … Gracie gets her laughs—we hope—because we often THINK the way Gracie TALKS, but we pride ourselves that WE never talk the way Gracie thinks.”50 Gracie did many things that no other female partner accomplished on primetime network radio programs—she was the focus of the show, the plots always revolved around her antics, and (p.71) George was the sidekick stooge who fed her straight lines, sighed in exasperation, and puffed on his cigar. George called Gracie out for her craziness, but she was never really punished for the chaos she caused, unlike the troublesome Baby Snooks, who got spankings from her exasperated father, or Our Miss Brooks, who was thunderously called on the carpet by her principal in every episode. Gracie, like Mary, was also always presented as an attractive, tastefully dressed upper-middle-class woman. While male characters on the Burns and Allen show may have criticized Gracie’s seeming lack of intelligence, none ever disparaged her looks. In contrast, Bob Hope regularly insulted the man-chasing “debutantes” Brenda and Cobina, Archie cracked on Miss Duffy on Duffy’s Tavern, and the Kingfish called his nagging wife Sapphire “The Old Battle Axe” behind her back.51
As with Mary Livingstone, Gracie’s comic timing in delivering her lines was impeccable and her laughter was a “crucial element of her vocal performance,” as Leah Lowe notes. (George Burns used his cigar to help the couple’s comic timing, as he could always take a puff if the audience laughter continued.)52 Lowe states that “much of what is funny [on the radio] arises from the vocal delivery of scripted dialogue rather than scripted dialogue in and of itself.”53 Like Mary, Gracie frequently laughed at seemingly nothing, and when George asked her why, she followed with a non sequitur or said “I don’t get it” rather than make a joking, critical comment.54 Gracie’s laughter fell over George’s dialogue lines and disrupted the flow of the conversation, whereas everyone on the Benny show paused when Mary laughed, to relish the sound, and to find out what she thought was amusing.
Like Gracie’s ridiculous stories about her brothers, Mary’s reading of letters from her mother back in Plainfield allowed her to ground some of her comedy in domestic and family situations. The letters from Mary’s Mama (which began tentatively in June 1934 and became a regular feature in April 1935), contain humorous stories about misbehaving uncles, brothers, father, and life on the farm.55 Mama was a strong-headed and forceful woman who often worked masculine-type jobs like driving a milk delivery truck and pummeled her misbehaving, lazy, drunken husband, Papa. Mary’s brothers, uncles, and cousins suffered ludicrous accidents, took strange jobs, and did crazy things that were fodder for the wry jokes, bad puns, and working-class-focused humor that enlivened these letters, all read in a lighter tone than Mary might otherwise take when criticizing Jack. Mary’s sister Babe, the man-hungry pipefitter or steamroller operator, entered into the Benny show’s narrative in the 1940s. Even as the Mary character’s tone sharpened in the (p.72) 1940s, the letters from her mother seemed to soften her character by association. The put-down jokes about Babe were the closest the Benny show comes to putting down Mary herself, although Mary always appeared superior to her hapless sister.
Letters from home were the limit of Mary Livingstone’s domesticity, however. Unlike Kate Smith, who was portrayed as a homemaking expert when her program was sponsored by a food company, or Fibber McGee’s Molly, (even Gracie, who kept house for George after a fashion), the Mary Livingstone character was never shown to be cooking or cleaning. It is ironically amusing that, during the eight years that the Benny show was sponsored by Jell-O, Mary never entered a kitchen to whip up a batch. Announcer Don Wilson, who emoted so enthusiastically about the product, spoke as if he was well-versed in preparing it. In Jell-O magazine and newspaper advertising, a cook or even Jack himself prepared the Jell-O or Jell-O Ice Cream Powder. In a 1936 full-page color comic pages newspaper advertisement, “Jack Benny Pulls a fast one on Mary Livingstone,” Jack in an apron and chef’s hat beckoned to Mary and said “Mary—If you’ll promise not to write any more poems, I’ll make dessert tonight!”56 Although Mary shared equal billing with Jack on the cover of the Jell-O recipe booklet given away by the radio show’s sponsors in 1937, the closest she ever came to the actual product was a spoon to eat it with.
There was always some trumped-up confusion about whether Jack and Mary were actually married, because their stage names were different and they did not play a married couple on the radio. Undoubtedly most of the public knew they were a couple, but fan magazines could exploit the mystery. The Detroit Free Press played up this angle in a 1933 interview: “Jack Benny, the merry fellow who entertains you via the air, and Mary Livingstone, his pesky girlfriend, are doing their scrapping in Detroit this week. Only they’re registered at the Book-Cadillac Hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Benny, and they point with pride to the fact that they are going to celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary soon.” An advertisement for the August 1935 issue of Radio Stars raised the question “Why Did they Marry?” “Read—The Love Story of Mary and Jack Benny.” “Is it true that Mary Livingstone, the cute girl on Jack Benny’s program, is his wife in real life? How did they meet? What is their love story?”57 But marriage also had its realistic downside, to which female fans could also connect. A 1941 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, “Wives and Husbands Make the Best Radio Teams,” darkly hinted, “Who, for example, knows better the foibles and all too human weaknesses of that perennial radio heel, Jack Benny, than Mary Livingstone?58
(p.73) In interviews, Mary Livingstone spoke of the stage fright, mike fright, and nervousness in front of audiences that plagued her. She continued to downplay her performing talents and walked away from opportunities that other actresses would have leapt at. A 1939 fan magazine article noted, “Mary Livingstone attracted considerable attention as a vocalist when she sang the title role in the Benny air version of ‘Snow White’ last season, and two or three times a year she’s coaxed to vocalize. Mary’s opinion of her own voice, however, isn’t as high as her critics’ so it’s only at the insistence of Jack that she sings.”59 Mary appeared in one motion picture, Paramount’s 1937 This Way Please, a light romantic comedy about movie theater ushers featuring radio personalities Jim and Marion Jordan, bandleader Buddy Rogers, and rising film starlet Betty Grable. The Los Angeles Times film gossip columns noted, “Enter Mrs. Jack Benny as a motion picture star. And just why has that debut been delayed so long—considering how much she contributes to the entertainment on the famous Benny radio program?” While Jack incorporated mentions of Mary’s upcoming film appearance into the radio show, and in October 1937 Jack read out on the air a review published in the Hollywood Reporter that complimented Mary’s performance, Mary didn’t like to talk about the film or her experience. Mary went to the trouble of having plastic surgery done on her nose in 1940 to make her appearance less ethnic and more glamorous for possible movie roles, but she did not expand her film career.60 (The procedure also seemed to make her radio voice sound less nasal.) Even though Paramount kept offering film contracts, Mary never appeared in the movies again, lending only her voice to one scene in 1940’s Buck Benny Rides Again and the 1959 Warner Bros. cartoon The Mouse that Jack Built.61
Mary’s Laughter becomes More Incisive
Mary’s greatest asset, her show-stopping laugh, was bright and lengthy, and Benny and his writers utilized it to great advantage.62 Jack would be chattering away with other characters, ridiculous boasts flying, and then Mary would launch her hilarious reaction. After a beat of silence, Jack would respond, “What’re you laughing at, Mary?” Then Mary would sharply quip her retort, which at its best was a clever pun that punctured Jack’s hubris. During the Benny program broadcast of February 14, 1937, for example, Jack and Phil were exchanging remarks with the guest star, bandleader Ben (p.74) Bernie. Each had greeted the other in elaborate fashion as “Maestro.” As their discussion continued:
Say Ben, come ’ere a minute, let me ask you, man to man. … Now he’s supposed to be funny, but I can’t see that fellow Fred Allen, can you?
No I can’t.
I can’t see him either!
Mary, what’re you laughing at?
Three blind maestros.
In the 1930s, radio advertisers actually gauged the success of the comedy programs they sponsored by counting the number of laughs emanating from the studio audience during a performance, and measuring the duration of audience reactions. Benny’s writers and producers informally kept score during the broadcasts, and audience response to Mary’s jokes and laughter was consistently the highest for any Benny show cast member.63 Other than her witty retorts, however, much of Mary’s humor during the first five years on the air hinged on her misunderstanding of situations or lack of intelligence. When Kenny Baker was hired as the new tenor in November 1935, following in the footsteps of the somewhat sophisticated, wisecracking singer Frank Parker, Benny and Conn decided to make Baker’s character be a young and foolish brat. In her autobiography, Mary recalled her character’s early immaturity, and that “when Kenny came on, the writers made him dumb, too. It didn’t take Jack long to discover that two dopes weren’t as funny as one. That’s when I became Jack’s smart-aleck girlfriend.”64 When Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin joined the program as writers in Spring 1936, Mary’s character especially began to become more intelligent, her laughter more of a comic weapon, and her critical barbs launched at Jack more biting. This sharpening of Mary’s character coincided with developments of Jack’s own radio persona to become less of the polished master of ceremonies and more the bumbling, egotistical “Fall Guy.”
In his 1939 guide, Handbook of Radio Writing, Erik Barnouw discussed the problem of how to avoid “vanishing characters” in crafting multicharacter narratives for broadcasting. He argued that Mary’s radio lines made an unexpected positive use of the tendency of characters to disappear into the background of radio dialogue.65 Barnouw stated that if the radio listener (p.75) didn’t hear a character speak for a while, that character became invisible. He counseled prospective writers that, when they needed a radio character to give a long speech, to occasionally insert references to the person he is speaking to into the text, to acknowledge them and, in Barnouw’s words “keep them alive.” Otherwise, long speeches should be regularly interrupted by others’ comments, or those silent characters seemed to “die.” Barnouw reasoned that the problem of invisibility was why the dialogue on most programs came in spurts of repartee.66 However, Barnouw found that Benny comedy program turned this liability into an asset:
In the world of Jack Benny’s comedy … the writer doesn’t care a hoot about the prosaic worry of keeping characters alive. Sometimes, in fact, he derives a definite value from letting them die. Mary Livingstone isn’t in the picture continuously. Sometimes she has silent intervals during which she drops completely from our consciousness. This, as a matter of fact, is what makes her sudden reincarnations so delightfully abrupt and shattering. This same abruptness couldn’t quite be conveyed on the stage. It owes its punch to the very fact that, a moment before, she didn’t even exist.
Barnouw provided an example from the Jell-O Program in which Jack and Don Wilson had been conversing, alone, for several minutes:
Mr. Benny, there’s one more question the ladies in particular would be very much interested in. Do you MIND telling us your age?
Do you MIND telling us your age?
I’m just 31.
“A quick stab like this is the more effective,” Barnouw concluded, “because, like the door, or the telephone that rings, Mary comes into existence just as that moment.”
Women’s Humorous Assault on Men in the Benny Narrative Universe
Jack Benny’s radio program, like those of many other comedies, dramas, and soap operas of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, was framed around tensions in the (p.76) relationships between women and men. However, unlike most other comedies and dramas broadcast in prime time, Benny’s show showed marked sympathy for the women’s point of view in the battle of the sexes. Mary Livingstone and the other female characters on the Benny radio program wielded considerable social, psychological, and economic authority over the men, and they most often wore the pants in their families. Strong-willed, smart, and confident female characters such as Dennis’s mother—the battle-axe-waving, milk-truck-driving Mrs. Lucretia Day; Mary Livingstone’s feisty mother (who ran the household, held down jobs, and browbeat her lazy husband and male relatives on the farm in Plainfield); the frosty female movie stars who disdained Jack, the diner waitresses who dished out sarcasm with the food, and Gertrude and Mabel the telephone switchboard operators, all gave trouble by telling the truth to Benny and the other men on the radio program. The female characters were nearly always working women—all held jobs and supported themselves and often their entire families. In the Benny radio world there were no frail ingénues, no cloyingly sweet innocent girls, and no happy housewives, no nurturing aunts or grandmothers—no subservient, dependent, or sentimental women whose goal in life was to serve and to please men.
Benny’s radio world was a place where traditional gender relationships were turned upside down. While conservative listeners might laugh derisively at the women on this show for denigrating the sanctity of marriage and the family, other listeners appreciated how the Benny program could “audaciously turn the tables on women’s usually subordinated position.”67 Benny and the other men fell short of stereotypical definitions of heterosexual masculinity—weak, timid, immature, old, lazy, unemployed, and often drunk (the only exceptions being film actor guest stars and stern sponsors). As the next chapter will further explore, men on the Benny program desperately hung on to the last shreds of patriarchy by a thread. Mary Livingstone’s character led the show’s vanguard of females unafraid to make a spectacle of themselves—women who had to work with and live with these men, and laughed at them with abandon, knowing that they were going to have to carry their own weight.68
Benny’s program complicated the gender norms espoused on other radio comedies. Gerard Jones notes in his history of the genre that “unhappy wives had always been a staple of sitcoms, of course, but their image had always been counterbalanced by that of the happy wife, either the protagonist or a loving spouse.”69 On the Benny program, there were no compliant females to counterpoint Mary’s independence and caustic criticisms, and there was no (p.77) “sentimentalized portrayal” of family life.70 Meanwhile, the narratives of other popular radio comedy programs hewed to stereotypes about women and their behavior. Bob Hope’s women were either objectified as sex objects of Hope’s wolfish desire, or scorned as man-hungry harridans like Vera Vague or Brenda and Cobina (doppelgangers of high society debutantes of the day). Hope, Eddie Cantor, and Red Skelton created comic worlds in which the gender divisions between men and women were so calcified that the boundaries could rarely be crossed. Ridiculing women made men feel part of a group united against their opposites. Jokes about women allowed men to deal with their anxiety about the power of matriarchy and their own insecurities about their heterosexual masculinity. Even the Benny program insulted women who behaved unconventionally or didn’t meet societal standards of beauty (like Mary’s sister Babe, or Jack’s meager girlfriend Gladys Zybisco),71 and Mary Livingstone gleefully made catty comments about them. Nevertheless, male misbehavior was reprimanded on the Benny program more regularly than it was on the other programs.
The humor of Benny’s narrative world seems feminist inflected, even as it was produced for twenty years on radio by male scriptwriters. The show’s humor reflected a down-to-earth cynicism about duties and pleasures of everyday domestic life, as it acknowledged that husbands did not often resemble Prince Charming, and that families bickered. Yet, with humor somehow we will get through this and everything will be OK. A cynical view of a world of endless amounts of work especially around the house binds the women in the Benny narrative world to the women who make the Jell-O, and gives them tremendous sympathy for Rochester. With the introduction and expansion of the Rochester role, we start to see Benny at home, living in the domestic world, away from work. As the show’s narrative played with more issues of Benny taking in laundry, bottling chili sauce, selling Christmas cards, we do flesh out his character as a male person much more fully than a sitcom dad who goes off to mysterious work, or just comes home and reads the paper.
Even though the Benny narrative world was a workplace sitcom, its male and female characters over the years seemed to build the close bonds of family. Despite all the insult humor and Mary’s endless jabbing at Jack, there is always a family-familiarity to the show, like squabbling siblings who do indeed care for each other. The insults in Benny’s world are the family fights of familiar characters that are bound together. Radio historian Susan Douglas suggests that joking insults assumed a familiarity between characters like battling siblings or spouses, so insult humor on the air made characters feel familiar (p.78) with each other, and more familiar to the audience.72 Douglas says of the Cantor program, “Men’s conceits about their attractiveness and sexual prowess, about their intelligence and general mastery over life, were pierced into flaccid, deflated balloons. But at the same time masculinity was recuperated, its resilience, toughness and instant ability to respond to a challenge celebrated week in and week out.” Conversely, Benny and his radio characters recuperated very little of their masculinity in their exchanges with women.
An example of the sympathy toward women that the Benny program portrayed is a comic Grape Nuts Flakes midprogram commercial (November 8, 1942) about house-husband Mr. Twink (Benny) who dishes up the Grape Nuts Flakes while his wife works a war job at the shipyard, and all the other service people who deliver milk, coal, mail, whatever, are saucy women who flirt with Benny.73
The scene is the little cottage of Oglethorpe J. Twink in Glendale, CA. It is breakfast time, and Mr. Twink, played by Jack Benny the eminent politician [“Hooray for Benny!” interjects writer Ed Beloin as a drunken voter] is awaiting the arrival of Mrs. Twink, his wife who is a welder on the nightshift in one of our huge aircraft factories, curtain, music… .
Oh dear, 7 am and Clarabelle isn’t home yet. It’s payday too. I hope she didn’t get into a crap game with some of the girls.[audience laughs]. Oh well she works hard, she’s entitled to a little a little fun, I guess. [knock on door] Now I wonder who that is, come in? Why its the ICE girl [audience laughs], hello Gloria.
(flirty voice) Any ice today, Twinkie?
Darn you, Gloria for the third time today, no. I am a married man!
Aw come on. Don’t you want a cake of ice, sweetie?
No and take your foot out of the door. [audience laughs for 4 seconds] If my wife finds you here heavens knows what will happen, now scram!
OK cutie, I’ll see you tomorrow. (door slam)
That Gloria’s fresher than the Fuller brush girl.[audience laughs] Well I might as well start getting breakfast ready for the twins, they love those toasty brown, sweet as a nut Grape Nuts Flakes. (sings) I’m dreaming of a white Christmas [audience laughs] … Just like the ones I used to know, where the tree tops glisten … (door opens) Clarabelle where have you been, its almost 8 o’clock.
(in her tough girl voice) Now, now honey stop nagging and give me a kiss.
Get away from me with those greasy hands, I’ve got a clean apron on[audience laughs] … now you tidy up.
OK, hand me the Dutch Cleanser, I want to wash my face. [audience laughs]
Here you are. … (singing) I’m dreaming … just like the ones I used to know. … You want some breakfast, dear?
Yes, but first give me my kiss.
Now Clarabelle …
Come on, kiss me. (small sounds of a tussle)
Not so early in the morning! Don’t be so rough! Clarabelle, the children will hear. … Now you broke the clasp on my slave bracelet!
Well I’ll take it to the plant tonight and weld it for you. By the way, why aren’t the kids up? (Joe and Josephine now appear, played by Phil and Dennis in childlike voices; they express excitement about eating their Grape Nuts Flakes, and Dennis complains that he wants to play the part of Joe)
Aren’t you going to have breakfast, dear?
Not until you give me that kiss.
Not in front of the children! Now you let me go!
PHIL AND DENNIS:
(sing-songy voices) Momma’s kissing daddy, momma’s kissing daddy!
Children behave yourselves. … (singing) I’m dreaming of a white Christmas … (knock) Oh, oh its Gloria.
Hey Twinkie honey, did I leave my ice tongs here?
Oh, so she calls you Twinkie, eh, so you’ve been playing around with that ice girl!
No, no I haven’t.
You’re going to have a white Christmas. … bandages.
Clarabelle put me down! Ouch! Ouch!
Chin up but with blackened eyes [a soap opera reference], Mr. Twink will serve breakfast.
Writer Milt Josefsberg recalled that Mary “was one of [the show’s] most valuable components because she could most frequently and fearlessly puncture his pomposity. Perhaps because she didn’t technically work for Jack and the program, and because she was also an attractive gal whom Jack occasionally dated, she could get away with more frequent and sharper insults than anyone else on the show. They were many, and they were funny.”74 Mary’s humorous attacks on Jack’s foibles became more pointed as his own vanities grew. Mary’s occasional “shut up!” jokes became potent laugh-getters. These were so shocking in their day (such sharp words to a man, coming from a woman) that they could be used only infrequently, but when sprinkled into the scripts every so often, Mary’s ripostes were the most powerful putdowns Jack’s character experienced. When later asked about which were his very favorite jokes across his program’s long history, Benny would of course nearly always mention the “Your Money or Your Life” skit. But his second-favorite audience laugh-getters always involved Mary. Many times he marveled that Mary got a huge audience response and long laughter with “just three words.” For example, when opera singer Dorothy Kirsten guest-starred on the April 25, 1948, episode, she and Don Wilson exchanged erudite opinions:
Oh, Miss Kirsten, I wanted to tell you that I saw you in Madame Butterfly Wednesday afternoon and I thought your performance was simply magnificent.
Well, that’s awfully kind of you, Mr. Wilson, but who could help singing Puccini? It’s so expressive—particularly the last act starting with the allegro vivacissimo.
Well, that’s being very modest, Miss Kirsten, but not every singer has the necessary bel canto and flexibility or the range to cope with the high tessitura of that first act.
Well, Mr. Wilson, didn’t you think in the aria “Un Bel Di Vedremo” that the strings played the con molto exceptionally fine, with great sostenendo?
Well, I thought… .
OH, SHUT UP!
(p.81) Jack recalled in a 1969 interview, “Mary’s simple three worlds, ‘Oh, Shut Up!” practically stopped the show. If I had to choose only one bit as being the funniest, that’s the one I would have to pick.”75 As other elements of the program’s comic world increased in intensity over time (Jack became more and more preposterously cheaper each year so that the newer jokes would “top” the previous ones), Benny’s writers used Mary’s sharpest rebukes, and most acrid tones, more often. By her final appearances the Benny program’s final episodes, Mary did come off as a pretty sour companion.
What may have saved Mary’s puncturings of Jack’s ego from being too ugly was the underlying context that the radio-listening public understood in the 1930s–1950s. No matter how sharp and mean Mary’s retorts to Jack might have been, she was nevertheless a loyal companion. She never left his side; she was always right there to go on crazy adventures in the Maxwell, to have dinner at his house, to go out for sandwiches after the show. Whenever the Jack character was sick or injured or sad, she was the first one there to visit (even if all she contributed as a nursemaid was a mustard plaster fashioned from an omelet made with Vicks Vapo-Rub). It was Mary who always accompanied Jack to public places. Another element ameliorating her harsh words was the obvious affection Jack exhibited toward Mary. Warmth was always in his voice when he spoke of her, such as when she was ill and had missed a program. At the end of a program, he would call her by his nickname for her, “Doll.” No matter how much she flayed his ego, the radio-listening public knew very well that Jack and Mary were the long-wed Mr. and Mrs. Benny in real life, and the public seemed to play along well with this double knowledge.
Another facet of Mary Livingstone’s character that may have tipped audience sympathy towards her was her continued recitation of silly poems. One of the best was this one, included in the January 1, 1939, broadcast, “Goodbye 1938, Hello 1939”:
- Oh Happy New Year, Happy New Year
- Please don’t be a sad and blue year
- These last twelve months have been sublime
- So goodbye 38, hello 39
- [Jack: Well, so far, nobody is screaming. Mary: You just wait.]
- I wonder who, this coming yar
- Will be our favorite movie star?
- Will it be Garbo, or Sonia Henie (HY-knee)?
- (p.82) So goodbye 38, Hello thirty-niney.
- [Jack: Niney?]
- What has this year in store for us
- For thee and thou and thy and thus
- Will Don get fat, will Phil be gay?
- Will Kenny get knowledge with a capital K?
- [Jack: I doubt it.]
- I’d like to ask you, if I dare
- Will Jack continue to lose his hair?
- [Jack: Mary …]
- And when its gone, will it stay away?
- Goodbye 38, hello toupee
- [Jack: Mary! Get to the last verse, will you? Mary: It’s coming up now.]
- Oh Happy New Year, Happy New Year
- Please don’t be a sad and blue year
- We will give you one more chance
- So goodbye Broadway, hello France.
- [Jack: Well!]
Mary’s poems (which ended in the early 1940s) and her playful reading of letters from her Mama in Plainfield revealed Mary’s softer side. No matter how sophisticated, tart, or icy Mary might have seemed, the letters from Mama still made her seem like a naïve girl.
An additional softening factor for Mary’s personality in the later 1940s and 1950s was the unexpected opportunities that arose when she flubbed her scripted lines. Mary’s on-air dialogue-reading gaffes, which occurred more frequently after the war (probably as she became even more anxious with mike-fright), took her down off her high perch. Her hilarious mistakes gave Jack the only reason he ever really found to criticize her, and triggered a lot of laughter among both studio and home audiences who were attuned to listen closely to the dialogue and thus catch the gaffes. Although Benny was not known for his ability to ad lib, when it came to correct timing and reading of lines on the program, Jack was quick as lightning to respond and to reprimand any scofflaws. When Mary flubbed lines, like saying “grass reek” instead of “grease rack” or “chiss sweeze” instead of “swiss cheese,” pandemonium broke loose with cast and audience. Benny’s writers did a great job of making the most of Mary’s inadvertent mistakes by working them into follow-up jokes for weeks afterward.76
(p.83) Meanwhile, Mary’s determination to avoid the publicity spotlight meant there was significantly less discussion of her than in the 1930s in the entertainment trade press and fan magazines (other than an occasional interview where her views about Jack were solicited). In the wartime military camp shows, there were jokes about Mary being pursued by pilots and junior officers. The character of a maid was added (first Butterfly, and then Pauline) to give her an added person with whom to exchange bits of dialogue. But Mary the “star” was becoming Mary the supporting character. Behind the scenes, she played an important production role. “Mary Livingstone is the spark of Benny’s Show,” noted a St. Joseph, Missouri, reporter, covering the Benny troupe’s broadcast from there in 1945, “The least obvious person seated at the long table was Mary Livingstone. And yet her presence was a tangible thing, like the unseen string that holds the string of pearls together. … Her actual speaking part on the broadcasts is only a minor factor. For Mary is called upon by the writers, by the rest of the cast, by Jack and even the sound boys when they want a constructive opinion on a gag, a line or a noise.”77 Benny, too, regularly attested to Mary’s skill in judging the laugh-getting potential of script lines and comic scenarios. In a 1952 interview, Jack noted that Mary would make an excellent producer for radio or television programs, and CBS had offered her a position if she ever wished to take it. Benny claimed that Mary possessed an innate sense of production values, that she “can usually tell us in advance whether or not a certain routine will play. Her clairvoyant judgment has been a big factor in our radio success.”78
Instead of continuing on as a major character in front of the microphone on Jack Benny’s radio program, or behind the scenes as a producer, however, Mary Livingstone chose a gradual retirement from performances and public life in the 1950s. As CBS began to allow them to prerecord episodes, Benny and his radio producers were able to take advantage of the technology, and Mary began to record her radio dialogue lines from home and have them spliced into the master tape (with substitutes like daughter Joan Benny or assistant Jeanette Eyman reading Mary’s lines with the cast at the studio in front of an audience). Benny and his writers made her speaking parts shorter and shorter. The decline of her role as Jack’s chief heckler meant that the Rochester character took up a steadier position in show narratives as Jack’s companion, both on radio and on TV.79 Mary joined Jack only on his third television broadcast in May 1951, then largely begged off the television shows until he coaxed her back on to take a smaller role in a score of filmed episodes at mid-decade (for which she would not have to appear before a live audience). (p.84) She claimed that it was nervous mike-fright that drove her from public performances:
In the beginning my appearances on the radio shows were fun. I actually enjoyed working once a week. But ironically, the more shows I did the more nervous I became. I still can’t figure it out, but it ended up with every Sunday being the most tortuous day of the week. I explained to Jack how much this was taking out of me and told him I couldn’t go on any longer. I was quitting and he would have to hire somebody else. … but Jack persuaded me to go on. Finally I went to Jack and broke down and told him.80
Eve Arden, whose tart-tongued cynicism in film roles and in the Our Miss Brooks radio and TV programs came the closest of any Hollywood performer to matching Mary’s, once related the story that Benny approached her at a party and suggested that she would be a fine candidate to take Mary’s place on his television show, but nothing ever came of it.81 In 1970, President Richard Nixon took credit for getting Mary out of retirement for one more brief appearance on one of Benny’s semiannual TV specials. Variety’s Jack Hellman reported that, “At their last meeting Nixon said to Benny, ‘When are you going to bring Mary back? I liked her laugh.’”82
Mary Livingstone’s unruly, attention-getting laughter; her impertinent, genial nonsense; and her razor-sharp deflations of Jack’s egotism were cornerstones of the Jack Benny radio program’s humor. Sadye Marks Benny, the reluctant performer, and Mary, her semifictional mouthpiece, accomplished what few other women in radio or film were able to carry off in the 1930s and 1940s—she enacted the persona of an independent, feisty young woman who could speak truth to male vanity and yet not be punished for raising her voice. Mary was joined in the narrative world of the Benny program by other disruptive women—frying-pan-wielding mothers, disdainful Hollywood actresses, sassy and murderous cigarette girls, put-upon waitresses—all of whom had to make their way in the world surrounded by Jack and the other imperfect men in their lives. In Benny’s world of gender representations, there were no sweet ingenues, and no self-effacing maternal figures; women may have been feared, but never despised by the men on the program. Unlike on some of the other radio comedy shows broadcast into American homes (p.85) during this era, given that the basis of much humor was insult laden and putting people into their place, the Benny program stood out. On this show, there was a great deal of respect and affection for women, and feminist sympathies, on a program that was always produced by male writers. Female characters on the Benny show spoke up for themselves and gave their radio audiences a space to laugh at life’s absurdities.
The next chapter turns to examine the representation of masculinity on Benny’s radio show, and how the project of turning Jack into the Fall Guy in every way possible meant that attacks on patriarchal authority, and stereotypical heterosexual identity, became major sources of the program’s humor.
(1.) Lucky Strike Program, April 27, 1947.
(2.) Mary Dalton and Laura Linder, eds., The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 85, 101, 106.
(3.) Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 109.
(4.) Kathleen Rowe, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 3–19.
(5.) Milt Josefsberg, The Jack Benny Show (New York: Crown, 1977), 253.
(p.325) (7.) Harriet Menken, “Laughs from the Ladies,” Delineator, August 1936, 64–65.
(8.) Orrin E. Dunlap, Jr., “Ladies of the Wavelengths,” New York Times, March 13, 1938.
(9.) Sadie Marcowitz birth certificate, Jack Benny Times 31, no. 3–4 (May–August 2016): 9. The certificate indicates her name as Sadie, but she spelled it Sadye.
(10.) Mary Livingstone Benny, Hilliard Marks, and Marcia Borie, Jack Benny: A Biography (New York: Doubleday 1978), vii.
(14.) “Marriages,” Variety, January 19, 1927, 27.
(17.) “Mary Livingstone,” IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2792434/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_8.
(18.) Fred Wilson, “She Couldn’t Help Being a Radio Star,” Boston Globe, June 30, 1935, 13.
(19.) Mary Benny, “Mary Benny Tells Why She Quit Show Biz,” Chicago Tribune, June 19, 1965, A1.
(20.) Canada Dry Program, May 23, June 15, June 27, 1932 scripts, Jack Benny Papers, Los Angeles, University of California at Los Angeles Special Collections, Collection 134, Radio Scripts Box 1, file 1.
(21.) Canada Dry Program, July 27, 1932, script, WEAF Masterbooks, NBC Collection, Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.
(22.) Canada Dry Program, August 1, 1932 script, Benny Papers, UCLA.
(23.) Jack Benny with Charles Martel, “Never Try to Be Funny,” Tower Radio, September 1934, 21.
(24.) Canada Dry Program, August 17, 1932 script, Jack Benny papers, UCLA..
(25.) Canada Dry Program, October 17, 1932, script, Jack Benny papers, UCLA.
(26.) Canada Dry Program, September 19, 1932, Jack Benny papers, UCLA.
(28.) Shlepperman, and then Phil Harris and Dennis Day, would occasionally address Mary by the nickname “Livvy,” which added an informal, flirtatious aspect to how the male cast members interacted with her.
(29.) Canada Dry Program, September 5, 1932 script(the script alternates between calling her Mary and Sadye), Jack Benny papers, UCLA.
(30.) Chevrolet Program, February 4, 1934 script, Benny Papers, UCLA..
(31.) Robert Heinl, “Radio Dial Flashes,” Washington Post, November 21, 1932, 8.
(32.) Canada Dry Program, January 15, 1933 script, Benny Papers, UCLA.
(33.) “Benny, at $2750 Is Jolson’s Successor; 2d Top Radio Salary,” Variety February 28, 1933, 49.
(p.326) (34.) June 1933 review of Chevrolet Program, Benny Scrapbook 1932–1933, Jack Benny Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Box 90.
(35.) Variety, January 2, 1934, 75.
(36.) Robert Heinl, “Radio Dial Flashes,” Washington Post, April 11, 1933.
(37.) Robert Heinl, “Radio Dial Flashes,” Washington Post, May 19, 1933, 9.9.
(38.) Thomas Doherty, review of Jill Watts, Mae West: An Icon in Black and White (Oxford 2001), American Historical Review (December 2002): 1576–77.
(39.) Jell-O Program, May 30, 1937.
(40.) Review of show at Palace, Chicago, Variety, July 4, 1933, 14.
(41.) Fred Wilson, “She Couldn’t Help Being a Radio Star,” Boston Globe, June 30, 1935, 13.
(42.) Larry Wolters, “How New Radio Season Looks to a Listener.” Chicago Tribune, October 20, 1935, SW6.
(43.) “Write Comedy Verse! Fatten Your Purse,” Detroit Times, May 4, 1936, Benny Scrapbook 1936, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Box 90.
(44.) Untitled clipping, Detroit Times, May 5, 1936, Benny Scrapbook 1936, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Box 90.
(45.) “Portland Hoffa, 80, Mrs. Fred Allen in Life and on Air,”, Boston Globe, January 1, 1991, 17.
(46.) Leah Lowe, “‘If the Country’s Going Gracie, So Can You’: Gender Representation in Gracie Allen’s Radio Comedy,” in Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture, ed. Susan M. Squire (Duke 2003), 237–50.
(50.) George Burns, “Gracie Allen as I Know Her,” Independent Woman, July 1940, 214, quoted in Shirley Staples, Male-Female Comedy Teams in American Vaudeville 1965–1932 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984), 224.
(51.) Jim Cox, The Great Radio Sitcoms (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007), 43.
(52.) Cynthia Clements and Sandra Weber, George Burns and Gracie Allen: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 31.
(55.) General Tire Program, June 15 1934 script, Jell-O Program, April 29, July 7, December 6, 1935, scripts, Benny Papers, UCLA.
(56.) Untitled article, Detroit Times, Sunday May 10, 1936, Benny Scrapbook 1936, Benny Collection, American Heritage Center, box 90.
(57.) Advertisement in Modern Romances, 7 (no date, ca. 1935), KFS clippings collection.
(58.) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 18, 1941. Jennifer Hyland Wang has found fascinating parallels in the humor of Allen Prescott’s daytime household hints radio program of the 1930s and 1940s. Wang, “Recipe for Laughs: Comedy While Cleaning (p.327) in the Wife Saver,” Journal of e-Media Studies 4, no. 1 (2015), http://journals.dartmouth.edu/cgi-bin/WebObjects/Journals.woa/xmlpage/4/article/454.
(59.) “Jack Benny and His Gang,” (undated, ca. 1939), [unknown source, in KFS clippings collection].
(60.) Edgar A Thompson, “Riding the Airwaves,” Milwaukee Journal, May 30 1940, 2.
(61.) Edwin Schaller, “Jack Benny to Be Absent When Wife Debuts in Picture,” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1937, A10. “Mary to Star without Jack,” Washington Post, May 30, 1937, T4.
(62.) Milt Josefsberg noted that she actually had two laughs—“a stage prop laugh which we’d have her use frequently on the air, and her real laugh, which is slightly heavier and heartier.” Josefsberg, The Jack Benny Show, 184.
(63.) Carroll Nye, “Air Comedians Gags Metered for Laughs,” Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1937, C10.
(65.) Erik Barnouw, Handbook of Radio Writing: An Outline of Techniques and Markets in radio writing in the United States (Boston: Little, Brown, 1939).
(67.) Karin Quimby, “Will & Grace: Negotiating (Gay) Marriage on Prime-Time Television.” Journal of Popular Culture 38, no. 4 (2005): 713.
(69.) Gerard Jones, Honey, I’m Home!: Sitcoms: Selling the American Dream (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 196.
(70.) Rebecca Feasey, Masculinity and Popular Television (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 22, quoting Richard Zoglin, “Where Fathers and Mothers Know Best,” Time, June 1, 1992, 33.
(71.) Jerome Neu, Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 65.
(73.) Grape Nuts Flakes Program, November 8, 1942.
(75.) Hank Grant, untitled article in Hollywood Reporter, June 16, 1969, reprinted in Josefsberg, The Jack Benny Show, 137–9.
(77.) Lucille Walker, “Mary Livingstone Is the Spark of Benny’s Show,” St. Joseph (MO) News Press, February 18, 1945, 1.
(78.) Jack Hellman “Chain Breaks,” Variety, March 24, 1952, 44.
(79.) “It’s Benny Two to One,” Newsweek, March 31, 1947, 67.
(80.) Mary Benny, “Mary Benny Tells Why She Quit Show Biz,” Chicago Tribune, June 19. 1965, A1. “Mary Livingstone Finally Decides to Work on TV,” Fredericks-burg, VA Free Lance–Star, October 27, 1952, 15.
(81.) Eve Arden interview with Check Schaden, recorded January 31, 1975, available at http://www.speakingofradio.com/interviews/eve-arden/.
(82.) Jack Hellman, “Light and Airy,” Variety, November 9, 1970, 10.